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Apr 172014
 
 April 17, 2014  Posted by  Features, Hot Deals, Money, Travel
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For years, I’ve had a Delta American Express credit card and been happy with it. Each year, I earned thousands of frequent flier miles and a free companion certificate (basically a FREE ticket). Plus, I could check one bag per person in my party for free when flying and received discounts on in-flight purchases. For me, that meant when my family of four flew anywhere, usually every couple of years, we usually paid for only one or two tickets and checked our bags for free.

In the past several months, as Delta has made changes to its frequent flier program, my travel credit card  is becoming less and less of a deal. So I find myself in need of a new card, one with rewards that really are rewarding. But there are so many cards out there, choosing the right one can be overwhelming. Here’s what I learned from my search, along with a few key points to consider when making your choice.

  • Interest rate. How do you plan to use your card? If you tend to carry a balance, choosing one that most meets your needs with the lowest interest rate makes the most sense. However, if, like me, you only use a credit card for  groceries or other fixed bills that you know you can pay off each month, then the APR (annual percentage rate) isn’t your biggest concern
  • Annual fee. These can vary from $50 to more than $100 a year. Every card I looked at waived this fee for the first year. However, with so many cards on the market, I’m not crazy about paying money just for the privilege of carrying around a specific piece of plastic in my wallet. However, if you travel all the time and some of the smaller perks of a card (like free baggage check and priority boarding) appeal to you, the fee may be worthwhile.
  • Expiration. Several, but not all, cards out there offer points that don’t expire. The points earned may be a bit lower on some of the no-expiration cards. The biggest factor here is how much you travel. If you’re jet-setting around more than once a year, the lifespan of your points won’t really matter. But if you’re travelling once a year or less, the slightly lower points earned may be worth knowing that those points will be there next month, next year and five years from now.
  • Points earned for purchases. This would seem to be the big decision maker: how many miles can you get for what you spend. Typically you’ll earn 1 to 3 points for every dollar spent (some cards refer to it as 1% to 3%). Translation: $100 = 100 points. So, you spend $800, you earn 800 to 2,400 points, depending on the card and your purchase. Some cards earn the same amount of points no matter what you buy, while some cards award more points for travel, gas or grocery purchases. One card I looked at even offered double points for all restaurant purchases. If you dine out often, this may be the card for you.
  • Bonuses. Some cards offer bonuses to new customers who spend a certain amount of money within the first three months of receiving the card. Typically, those with bigger bonuses require bigger spending. For example, if you spend $3,000 in the first three months, you’ll earn 40,000 bonus points. Compare that to another card offering 10,000 bonus points if you spend $500 in the first three months. Consider what you’re likely to spend, without forcing yourself to spend more just to earn the points (which sort of defeats the purpose of trying to save money on travel), to determine how many bonus points you could realistically earn.

Now the cards. There are literally hundreds out there. I’ve narrowed down the pool what I felt were the Top 5 based on the key points above. To keep things manageable, I focused only on cards whose points could be used on any airline or hotel. Most airlines and hotel chains have their own cards that award a slightly higher number of points when you make purchases from their company. If you are loyal to your airlines or hotels, you may want to consider one of these cards. Simply refer to the five key points above when comparing cards. In no particular order, here are my picks:

Bank of America Travel Rewards

  • Interest rate: 0% for first 12 months, then 14.99% to 22.99% based on credit history.
  • Fee: None.
  • Expiration: Points never expire.
  • Points: 1.5 points for every dollar spent everywhere, except 3 points for every dollar spent booking travel through its travel center.
  • Bonus: 10,000 points if you spend $500 in first 3 months.
  • Why I like this card: It has no fee, points never expire and you get a decent bonus early on without having to spend a fortune.

Bank of America AAA Member Rewards (must be AAA member)

  • Interest rate: 2.99% for first 12 months, then 12.99% to 22.99% based on credit history.
  • Fee: None.
  • Expiration: Points last for 5 years.
  • Points: 3 points for every dollar spent on AAA and travel; 2 points on gas, groceries and drugstore purchases; 1 point everywhere else.
  • Bonus: None.
  • Why I like this card: If you’re a frequent traveler, you can really rack up the points easily. Also, there’s no fee.

Chase Sapphire

  • Interest rate: 15.99%.
  • Fee: None.
  • Expiration: Points never expire.
  • Points: 2 points for every dollar spent at restaurants and on travel; 3 points if you book travel through its travel program; 1 point everywhere else.
  • Bonus: 10,000 points if you spend $500 in first 3 months.
  • Why I like this card: It has no fee, points never expire and you get a decent bonus early on without having to spend a fortune. If you happen to dine out often, you can score more points.

Barclay Arrival World Mastercard

  • Interest rate: 0% for first 12 months, then 14.99%-18.99% based on credit history.
  • Fee: $89/year, waived for the first year.
  • Expiration: Points never expire.
  • Points: 2 points for every dollar spent.
  • Bonus: 40,000 points if you spend $3,000 in first 3 months, plus you earn 10% back when you pay for miles with points.
  • Additional benefits: Up to $200,000 travel accident insurance. Reimbursement for expenses if your baggage is delayed or misdirected. Trip cancellation/interruption coverage.
  • Why I like this card: The points never expire, the extra benefits are helpful, and if you use plastic often, you can get a good chunk of bonus points with early use.

Capital One Venture Rewards

  • Interest rate: 13.9%-20.9% based on credit history.
  • Fee: $59/year, waived for the first year.
  • Expiration: Points never expire.
  • Points: 2 points for every dollar spent.
  • Bonus: 20,000 points if you spend $2,000 in first 3 months.
  • Additional benefits: Receive complimentary upgrades and special savings at hotels, resorts and spas with card; special access and preferred seating at popular sporting events; premier golf outings; concerts; 24-hour roadside assistance; additional warranty protection at no charge on items that are purchased with card; collision, damage and loss insurance on rental cars.
  • Why I like this card: Points never expire, lots of great extra benefits, the fee isn’t too hefty, and you can still get a decent bonus without spending quite as much as the card above.

According to Beverly Harzog, credit card expert and author of Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid the Mistakes I Made: “Some credit cards offer rental car insurance, roadside emergency services, lost luggage reimbursement, trip cancellation insurance, priority boarding, airport lounge access, and 24/7 concierge services that can help you obtain hard-to-get tickets for Broadway, sporting events and more. And some cards offer anniversary bonuses, which can help pay for the annual fee.”

However, you may not be able to learn this information until after you’ve applied and been approved for your card.  That’s why some of the cards listed above include “additional benefits” and some do not.  But Harzog suggests, once you select your card, be sure to read the fine print so you can take advantage of the benefits.  She also adds, “It’s important to know that terms and conditions vary by card and the details can vary quite a bit from card to card. For example, even if it’s a Visa card, the bank can change the benefits a little. So every Visa card won’t necessarily have the same benefits. And the bank might add some enticing benefits to one of their cards and not to another.”

We all have different needs and spending habits. This research has helped me choose my new travel rewards card, and I hope it will do the same for you.

Heidi McIndoo

is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, author, and bargain hunter. She loves saving money and finding great deals, and can’t help but share the wealth when she does. She also loves all things food: baking, cooking, buying, eating, and more. She’s written about nutrition and healthy eating for Parents, Woman’s Day, All You, Prevention, and more. She enjoys teaching people how to eat both nutritiously and deliciously. And, in her two latest books she does just that — When to Eat What and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 200-300-400 Calorie Meals. She lives with her family in the Metro Boston area.

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